On Portraiture

When Jamie invites me to drive down the southwest coast of France from Arcachon to Biarritz, I bring my camera. He lives in a van and knows every road to Spain by heart.

It’s the beginning of a long weekend in May, and there’s no 7pm curfew in isolation. After parking in a nature reserve on the outskirts of Mimizan, we walk towards the beach through a forest littered with old branches. We are surrounded by pines, but the branches lay stripped dry and bleached white, like whale bones. Some have been assembled into well-fortified tipis, by either a children’s summer camp or a strange man who moves in the woods by night. I do not take any photos.

There are some people who are opposed to photography as an art. Typically, the argument is that photography is too easy. Point and shoot.

Technically, that’s correct. But you could make the same case for classic arts like painting: you brush colours onto a canvas. It doesn’t guarantee that your final product will be worth remembering. It just guarantees that you’ll have one.

Without a fresh roll of film, Jamie’s camera rests in the van, which has long faded from view. We climb the dune that separates forest from ocean, sand filling our shoes with every step. Panels of wood forming a hasty boardwalk are draped across it, stopping us from sinking in completely. We pause at the top to admire the Atlantic below us, our hair blowing straight behind us as if it were not there at all. The waves are grey and scatter white all over the place.

Jamie describes it as a mess. I have no idea how to read waves, except that they make me feel small and weak. He explains that when the wind blows east towards the beach, the sea is unable to focus, and tosses itself haphazardly towards shore.

We look at the wind forecast together, a premonition of how as the evening goes on, the little arrow on the screen will begin pointing north. Neither north nor east will allow for neat waves, the kind that make for ideal surfing conditions.

We descend to the ocean, and I take a photo.

Later as rain falls on the roof of the van, Jamie says that he doesn’t care if I sleep with someone else because he’s not attached to me. Our bodies are intertwined under the blankets, his body constantly emanating heat and mine sweating as consequence. My toes touch the baseboard, the only part of me still cold.

The candle flickers on the nightside table, unafraid of the falling blankets. Jamie’s face flashes red and vaguely reminds me of someone I used to know when I was younger. In those few seconds, he is more photograph than person to me. I would take a photo but I cannot see beyond the flame to find my camera. It’s the last thing I remember thinking before falling asleep.

We wake to rain, something I get used to. Our dishes from last night lay outside, cleaning themselves in the falling water. Jamie gets up to make himself a coffee and the steam from his coffeemaker billows in the van, evaporating into nothing. We’re both hungry but lack the energy that is typical of a wet Saturday morning, moving as slow as time permits.

As we travel further south, I realize that there isn’t much to distinguish between the beach towns that line the southwest coast. Everything falls on a gradient of cream white to pale peach, missing the bright colours that adorn the Riviera, and rightfully so. There’s nothing flashy to see on the sand coated miles that stretch from Arcachon to Biarritz. Casinos with blinking lights and sprawling resorts are best placed elsewhere. Fine dining is a far off thought; ice cream vendors and waffle stands pepper every town, nestled amongst surf schools and board rental shops.

Modest families with children who are partial to mild hikes through the pines take up temporary residence on this side of the Atlantic. Car parks are filled with camper vans taking advantage of the long weekend. France’s best surf spots bring forth vans full of mostly men, with the occasional woman among them.  

The backroad to Biarritz goes through the same pine forest that we’ve already been following for miles. Occasionally we wind through a tiny town and witness the closing motions of a local market, making me feel mildly melancholic. The occasional forgotten pepper or potato lie lonely on the ground, waiting for the rare gleaner to come across its path. There’s not enough colour left to be worth taking out my camera.

To Jamie, all markets are the same. He feels similarly about the cities we pass, yet drives the same stretch of road several times a year. We continue pushing on through the trees, rain still dripping from above.

When I look out my window, the individual rows of pines thud one after the other. The Landes forest is entirely man-made, a regional project ordered by Napoleon to rescue the area from its swamp-like state and harvest the wood that would be available for years to come. Pines were the sole type of tree planted; at exactly two meters apart in rows that span as far as the eye can see, they are easily prone to forest fires.

I take a photo with a slow shutter speed, watching them burn together as we drive through.

Approaching Bayonne, we find rolls of film in a supermarket off the highway and are ecstatic to refill our cameras. Jamie loads his camera in the parking lot and fires the first shot of me in the passenger seat, smiling awkwardly.

In John Berger’s essay No More Portraits, he writes that the era of significant portraits has ended because there is no longer the need to encapsulate one’s greatness on a single painted canvas. We have cameras now, and an endless amount of ways to frame ourselves. The act of representing oneself is no longer a privilege held for those of high social standing. Since the democratization of photography, we are both artist and subject, gazing and being gazed at.

Jamie pulls the van over into a clearing in the forest, a brilliant green in the wake of rain. We wade into its heart, our pants streaked with the water that brushes off the plants we stride through. Our cameras are clutched close to our chests, keeping them dry from the water that drips off the branches above.

With fresh rolls of film, we see everything in a new light, as if our gazes have been altered. We now look at everything and question whether it’s worth remembering. If it is, we raise our cameras and press the button. If it’s not, we choose to forget it.

We come across a hidden stream, its water the colour of copper. I look at Jamie twice and choose to turn away. He takes one shot of me, my yellow raincoat pulled over my head, unsure of how to pose.

There is always an exchange between photographer and subject. Unlike drawing or painting where the artist is given full creative autonomy, the subject has a level of control over how they will be portrayed.

I ask Jamie to take off his clothes and streak through the field. Without questioning it, he finds a dry patch of earth under a tree and throws everything into a pile. He steps gingerly through the tall grass and tells me to look away from his cold thus shrunken penis. I put my camera lens between us and listen to the sharp click.

We make it to Biarritz in the late afternoon on Saturday, a few hours before curfew sets in. The rain has just cleared and the boardwalk is crowded with families strolling hand in hand. The waves here are nicer than in Mimizan, allowing crowds of surfers to bob in the water. A few brave groups of friends sit along the wet beach, dark sand sticking to their jeans as they rise. The sidewalk is narrower than one would imagine of a bustling coastal city, and snippets of conversation float around our ears as we pass by.

We don’t take any portraits in Biarritz. Despite it being the objective of our trip, we only end up spending a few hours there, turned off by the crowds of people that flood its streets and beaches. It’s the exact opposite of Mimizan’s barren landscape, and is hard to take a photo without catching several strangers in the background.

We walk the sloped path along the Atlantic under the constant threat of rain, feeling like the weekend could last forever. We stop on a hill and look at the water below us. I’m not sure which way the wind is blowing, but I don’t think it’s towards us.

I put my camera to my eye. Jamie, dressed head to toe in black, stands out in monochrome against the grey-blue sea. According to Berger, in a photographic portrait we are exposed to the likeness of a person, but we remain “highly conscious of the fact that nothing can contain itself.”

With his back turned to me, Jamie could be anyone. Portraits are maybe better that way, lingering in anonymity. Perhaps that’s the best thing about photography; its abundance allows memory to live in fragments, representing quiet details rather than aiming for grandeur.

I take in the ocean, the rocks, the grains of sand caught in Jamie’s hair, and the space that stands between us. I press the shutter button and realize I have no film left.

On Fiction

Someone pinned a note to Ernest Hemingway’s grave recently. Free of water stains, it read, “I started writing out of love and joy… I kept writing because of you. If you could create in the midst of misery, so can the rest of us.”

I write in my journal that I am not creating enough to call myself an artist. My journal is a garden for the half-truths I allow myself to flourish in.

I dropped a dime onto Hemingway’s small plot in Ketchum, Idaho, an inconspicuous spot sprinkled with pennies, wilted flowers, half-drunken bottles of whiskey, and a rain-torn copy of The Sun Also Rises. In my family, dimes are a sign of good luck.

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Ketchum, Idaho

Superstitions are ruled by neither fact nor fiction. Stepping on a crack and breaking someone’s back requires that you have a mother. Growing a long nose requires that you can distinguish your own lies from truth. Catching a bouquet at a wedding requires that you believe in fairness within monogamy.

In my journal of half-truths, I am trying to write less he-said-she-said, he-said-I-believed. I am trying to be less of a cliché, less of a girl who writes in cafes and becomes transfixed over writing in which she cannot distinguish fact from fiction. I have begun to say “transfixed” instead of “crying” because people love to read their own truths into situations when an emotional woman is involved.

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Boise, Idaho

At the end of I Love Dick, Chris Kraus writes, “No woman is an island-ess. We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling.”

Yesterday I called every sexual health clinic in downtown Toronto. I left three messages at three offices that went straight to an answering machine. None of them called me back.

There are extremists who believe that in a patriarchal society, all heterosexual sex is considered rape with woman as the victim. Power imbalances do not disappear once they have entered the realm of sex. I write in my journal that assault necessitates anxiety over any sexual encounters in the future. Most survivors of sexual assault are accused of lying.

I Love Dick is a collection of the many letters Kraus wrote to the man she fell in love with as she travelled across America and Guatemala. Kraus turned her sexual desire for Dick into a voyeuristic novel that garnered widespread acclaim and criticism. Hemingway is still considered one of the greatest life writers.

There are no appointments available at any clinic until the end of August. A woman learns how to accept in pieces. Kraus writes in I Love Dick how historically, female artists were not taken seriously because their work was considered too emotional and personal, therefore could not be speaking to the same level of universal truths that men explored in their creations. As a result, female artists took the personal and made it universal.

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Stanley, Idaho

Some lines from my journal that may or may not be true: birth control pills were first tested on incarcerated Puerto Rican women. The birds started chirping at 5:04am. I try to talk myself into being gay at least twice a year. Kraus is not taken seriously by literary institutions because female desire is seen as juvenile. I’m afraid to directly write about assault because I don’t want to be labelled as a victim.

I tell my friends that I only write experimental fiction. I tell boys that I’m not disinterested in that I only write poetry. I have my journal with me at all times. Telling the truth does not necessarily make it a fact.

Kraus and Hemingway wrote with desires to fictionalize their lives. In doing so, they have created myths of their own personalities, legends to be constructed in cultural manifestos and cited in peer-reviewed papers. Both have been threatened to be sued for defamation. Not everyone likes how fact and fiction stem from the same place.

I had a dream a few nights ago where my mouth was full of teeth that I kept spitting on my kitchen floor. I am unsure how to interpret that.

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Ketchum, Idaho

In Search of an Empty Room

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Toronto, 2017

Hanging on the north wall of my former Toronto bedroom used to be two strings of cut-out magazine letters, spelling out a multicoloured not realizing any place. This low-budget attempt at home decor was based off an Anaïs Nin quote that I’ve been thinking about for the past year. We go through life without definitely realizing any place. They all remain unreal for us. Nin, a woman of many homes and countries, understood that place is an abstraction. A city alone does not hold any meaning, yet despite staring at this truth every morning and night, I am still unable to grasp this concept.

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Ouro Preto, 2017

I’ve changed my address a lot in the past four years. Every time I move my pile of boxes seems to shrink, and the number of times I sit on the floor with my knees pulled into my chest staring at them increases. This phenomenon seems to correlate with my tendency to write melodramatic blog posts, but no need to psychoanalyze that. I over-pack every time I move, which I realized when closing a box labelled “vaguely important papers”. This box contains papers of no importance whatsoever, like a receipt for cheese bread, graduate school information, instructions on how to pay back my student loans, and old metro passes. Nevertheless, they’ve all made the cut to move with me, settling into their own spaces among the dusty nostalgia that lingers in each box.

Although I’ve accumulated more than enough over the past few years, several things have gotten lost between my many moves. Some have boarded the wrong flights and others were accidentally placed amid boxes of neglected hair products. The worst of this has been seven months’ worth of letters and postcards from my time in Paris, and the best of this has been a few misplaced love interests.

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Toronto, 2016

I place heavy importance on mementos like personalized letters and postcards, which is why my closet is full of bags containing every handwritten piece of paper since I was 9. I know that when I’m a dead famous writer these could all be published in The Paris Review, but until then I battle this urge to pack the letters from the past few years into the outer pockets of my suitcases. I never know when I might need to be reminded of what it felt like to love and be loved at a particular address. Place is informed by emotion, which begrudgingly remains partially informed by the people I surround myself with. I know it is dangerous to define one’s life in terms of others, which why I pack these letters away alongside the various journals I’ve filled up in the past years.

I wish I could say my journals were seeping with poetry, but the hundreds of pages I’ve filled over the last few years are littered with memories. The journal is a space of itself, a place where memory shifts to material. There is no speculation that accompanies channeling your most private thoughts into a tangible object. Yet, not all memories are created equally. There are some places I do not wish to revisit, and there are some places I have no choice but to remember. There are some cities I’ll pack into boxes or channel into creased city maps, always accessible to me through the pages of my journals. It is comforting to have a place to contain these memories where they remain unbothered by the decay of time, but then I am faced with the act of transportation. I will be changing my address three separate times this summer, yet I cannot justify filling up suitcase room with five years’ worth of thoughts.

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Höfn, 2016

When I’m unpacking after a move, I’ll sometimes find things that aren’t actually mine. Lonely socks that were left in the dryer before me, handfuls of words only my friends use, secondhand guilt, a string of plastic roses saved from the garbage, white neoliberal myths about diversity. I’ve always hoarded everything that fell into my possession, refusing to throw anything out because everything has sentimental value to someone who has trouble with separating memory from the material.

Ayn Rand might be a piece of capitalist garbage, but she was not wrong when she wrote that you can’t wait for a place to give you meaning. You have to give meaning to a place. If Ayn ever stopped hating poor people, maybe she would sympathize with me when I say that my problem is that I try to pack these places into boxes that I can cart from one location to another. I’ve never been in one place long enough to be content with taking just memories with me, but I find it difficult to say that I’ll ever be ready for that. A memory is just a roll of film you play over and over again until it has been altered beyond recognition. Fingerprints smudge the faces and soon you can’t remember what came first, forgetting to make plans to see your out-of-town friends or failing to write down their new addresses. Conversations fade into greyscale and time manipulates the lens as things you regret you said are replaced by things you wanted to say. It does not take long for all memories to mold into the shapes of rooms and streets you knew without a map.

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Belo Horizonte, 2017

These places linger in our minds triggered by nothing that can ever be truly replicated. Place held on a naked mattress stained with something I don’t remember spilling. Place smelling like the sandalwood incense I burned all third year. Place locked in a spoonful of my Goong Goong’s foo jook soup.

After I had loaded up my mom’s car on my last move out of Toronto, I took a look around my empty room. Despite the open window there was a placid silence, a sort of stillness in the curtains that was uncommon for a house of twelve students. I had first walked into the house many months prior with the humidity of a Toronto summer sticking to my body, and I was leaving it wrapped in layers on a cool overcast day. With my candles already packed away, my bedroom didn’t smell like anything. It didn’t feel like anything either, certainly not like I had lived there for a year. It was just another room.

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not realizing any place 🙂 🙂 🙂 xx